A look at the future of Houston’s big-man rotation
When Donatas Motiejunas came onto the court in Saturday’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the Houston Rockets fans cheered his return to the court for the first time in 2016. But while the fans were happy to see the Motiejunas trade rescinded, there was a logic behind the move.
One key facet behind that trade was that the Houston Rockets have a big man logjam. With Motiejunas back in a Rockets uniform, Daryl Morey has to look at all of his big man rotation and decide who to keep.
The Rockets have six rotation-level big men – Motiejunas, Terrence Jones, Josh Smith, Dwight Howard, Clint Capela, and Montrezl Harrell. In and of itself, that is too many big men to play the 96 available big man minutes.
And to make matters worse, it is difficult for any of them to play alongside each other. In an NBA which values shooting more than ever, Motiejunas is the only one who can be called a reliable 3-point shooter. Clint Capela, Dwight Howard, and Montrezl Harrell have no range whatsoever. While the Rockets had success earlier in the season with a Capela-Howard starting lineup, Coach J.B. Bickerstaff appears to be reluctant to use it thanks to those spacing issues.
As this season is already lost, the Rockets need to think about building for the future. So, which one of these six big men have a future with the Houston Rockets, and who does not?
Importance of contracts
The first thing to note is that while Houston has six big men, Motiejunas, Jones, Howard, and Smith will be free agents this summer. The Rockets will almost certainly not resign all four of them, so which ones will leave?
Josh Smith has not had an impressive season either with the Los Angeles Clippers or Houston, and will not command a large contract. But even though Houston offered Smith more money than the Clippers last season, he joined the Clippers due to the prospect of playing time. If Smith is after that again, then the logjam here means that there will almost certainly be another team which will give him a better offer.
Motiejunas and Jones are both free agents coming off of their rookie-scale contracts, and will be looking for a payday. Zach Lowe wrote back in August that both of them could be looking for as much as $15 million per year.
Paying $15 million for either player may seem absurd, especially since both have been out for significant periods with injuries. But this upcoming free agent market will see a lot of team with tons of cap room but few players to use it on. All it takes is one desperate team to convince themselves that either Jones or Motiejunas can become a franchise building block. It was this potential scenario which undoubtedly persuaded Morey to try to trade Motiejunas.
And then there is Howard. Howard could earn as much as $24 million over 5 years, which is a scary thought given his already declining athleticism. Any team which pays Howard that much will be left with a contract that will get very scary in years four and five, if not sooner.
I have thought that there will be a team willing to pay that much given the aforementioned dry free agent market. However, the lack of teams willing to give up anything for value for Howard around the trade deadline may indicate that interest for Howard may not be as high as anticipated. ESPN has reported that even a frontline player and a first-round pick was too rich an offer for teams around the league.
Howard has been one of Houston’s best players this season and perhaps the only one who cannot be blamed for the team’s sudden collapse. While he is aging, the Rockets should try to keep him if they can, as long as the contract is reasonable.
So, if the Rockets sign Howard to a reasonable deal and still keep Capela and Harrell, then that leaves the question of Motiejunas, Jones, and Smith.
On one hand, Daryl Morey has made some rumblings that he intends to find a new star to fit alongside Harden and possibly Howard. Given this poor season, the chances of Houston attracting a star in free agency are certainly low. But it will be nearly impossible if the Rockets end up resigning Jones or Motiejunas.
Consequently, the Rockets will have two choices this summer. Either they can let Motiejunas and Jones go, and gamble on another star like they have repeatedly done over the years. Or they will bring one of them back and hope to tinker around the edges to hope that something resembling the 2014-15 squad can resurface.
That, more than anything, will be the fundamental question which Daryl Morey must answer this upcoming summer. Especially since his seat is getting a bit warmer as of late.